By Melanie Pino-Elliott
“It is easy to lie with statistics; it is easier to lie without them.”
I read this Frederick Mosteller quote in the first chapter of my statistics textbook in grad school. And while I found statistics to be an exceedingly boring class, the quote always stayed with me and helped get me through it. Because I found that it captured exactly why this boring stuff is so important.
Statistics are the best tool we have for measuring how and if our laws are working.
Statistics are the best tool we have for measuring how and if our laws are working. Politicians tend to build their following through succinct and catchy platforms—fix our schools! Create jobs! Fight crime! But regardless of how good they may sound, the real test is actual impact—what the evidence shows about how effective your policies are. If, for example, your attempt to improve public education is through No Child Left Behind, well...nice idea, but it might not work out so well.
When your policies are unequivocally terrible, however—say, for instance, you decide to block legal entry to your country, treat all migrants as criminals, and separate them from their families before tossing them into cages and holding them indefinitely under perhaps the worst conditions imaginable —and as an added bonus, they don’t even have the intended effect of reducing immigration, so you can’t argue the end justifies the means—there may not be a way to spin those numbers in your favor. Not only might you not get reelected, you might be publicly reviled and go down in history as one of the worst human rights abusers of the 21st century. At that point, you may be better off trashing the evidence. Because it’s easier to lie without statistics.
I suspect this idea may have occurred to some in the current administration and contributed to the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR)’s missing roughly one million records of U.S. immigration cases from their database. EOIR is an office with the Department of Justice in charge of adjudicating immigration cases, and its database is used to identify juveniles, recently arrived families seeking asylum, and immigrants required to remain in Mexico under the Migration Protection Protocols, and other special cases.
TRAC also compared the September data with a data release from the year prior and found that nearly 897,000 records had been removed.
The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a nonpartisan information hub on federal immigration enforcement, receives updated anonymized case information from EOIR through a standing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. TRAC began to voice public concern this past October over alarming discrepancies in the data EOIR was providing. They found that more than 1,500 missing records of applications for relief, or ways to stay in the U.S., that had been in the August data release were missing in September. TRAC also compared the September data with a data release from the year prior and found that nearly 897,000 records had been removed.
TRAC then found none of the missing records had been added back into the updated data released in December. The number of missing applications for relief that had been in the August release rose to about 3,800, including 1,714 asylum applications.
EOIR claims that the data is simply being withheld under a FOIA exemption and that “to the best of [their] knowledge, the EOIR data release is accurate and up-to-date.” In other words, we’re just supposed to take their word for it. And why is TRAC, and by extension the general public, being denied access to the information used to make policy decisions about one of the most pressing issues of our time, one politicians campaign on and claim national emergencies over, one we should perhaps be able to make informed decisions about when voting? Idk. FOIA exemption. It’s a thing.
What’s truly bleak is the thought that when this systemic abuse of migrants has ended, we will not even have reliable data on exactly how extensive the damage is.
What’s truly bleak is the thought that when this systemic abuse of migrants has ended, we will not even have reliable data on exactly how extensive the damage is. This pathetic attempt at a coverup is, in my opinion, the last refuge of an administration that knows it’s done for. Obscuring the numbers is paving the way for their supporters and for future generations to deny or cast doubt on how bad it really was.
The atrocities committed by our government will never be forgotten.
However, they cannot make us unlearn what we already know. They cannot force us to forget the broken system and the shameful politics that led us here or what we’ve learned about what’s going on inside detention facilities, and they cannot erase the testimonies of survivors. The atrocities committed by our government will never be forgotten.
Melanie Pino-Elliott has conducted research and communications in the fields of international affairs, public policy, and human rights. She holds an MS in Criminology from the University of Pennsylvania and currently works in nonprofit development.